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The 1918 Happy Valley Fire Catastrophe.
A Terrible Human Cost

Fire memorial photos

Prior to the disaster

 

Caught in colour

 

Same image B+W

 


 

 Extracted from The Hongkong Daily Press
 Wednesday 27th February 1918

“At a few minutes to three o’clock, just after the third bell had rung for the first race after Tiffin, the whole row of Chinese booth and matsheds, except one on the extreme north, collapsed, and awful confusion ensured.  The stands fell gradually, beginning from the stand labeled D.A.J.A. and falling southward and outwards towards the road and made a sound like a rasping of a saw.  It looked as if the tops of all the stands had been connected by a wire hawser and that this had been pulled over gradually.  The stands and booths took about 10 seconds to collapse.  Only the stand next to the Civil Service Club and the side of the stand next to the Club Lusitano were left in position.

Immediately people in the enclosure realized the disaster there was a rush of read helpers – military, navel and civilian – to help to extricate the unfortunate people who were pinned down or shut in by the overturned structures.  For about five minutes there was a steady stream of men, women and children clambering for their lives through the broken or twisted bamboos, and breaking through the mass of leaves which formed the roofs of the sheds.

It looked at this time as if it would be possible to save almost everyone if a panic could be avoided, and in extricating victims and breaking holes in the roofing to enable people to get free the military and many civilian gave valuable help.  Just, however, when things appeared to be hopeful a fire broke out in one of the fallen booths  caused, it is supposed, by the overturning of a cooking stove, and in less time than it takes to write it the whole structure was a blazing mass with the fire spreading rapidly in both directions.  The outbreak caused a terrible panic in the outside stands and hundreds were thrown to the ground who would otherwise have had no difficulty in escaping.  Once down it was a case of finished.  The clouds of smoke which were rolling along the ground must have suffocated many.

Immediately things assumed this serious aspect Col. John Ward M.P., C.M.G., by direction of H.E., the Governor, was placed in charge of operations, and a number of men of the Middlesex regiment formed a cordon around the blazing sheds and kept the crowd back, whilst others of the same regiment, with practically all the military and police who were employed on the ground , advanced to the danger zone and lent what aid they could.  In this they were assisted by most of the officers who were in the enclosure and by many civilians.  It was gratifying to see how spontaneously people came forward and did what they could to help.   The injured were carried out and laid on the golf course and several cases were taken into the enclosure for treatment.

As the last fire grew more intense it was impossible to approach within 40 yards of it, but even then courageous rescues were effected, though a number of the rescuers were overcome by the heat and smoke.

At this stage a grave difficulty arose.  All the chauffeurs of the numerous motorcars outside the ground had either made off or taken freight and decamped.   The cars were urgently required for carrying the wounded.  In a short time however, volunteer amateur chauffeurs were found, and the procession started hospital wards.

The wounded were treated on the spot by the R.A.M.C., Police reservists, V.A.D., ladies and members of the St. John Ambulance Brigade, and splendid work was accomplished.  Dr. McKenny, Lt.Col. Crisp,  and Major Black were noticed amongst many others actively ministering to the more serious cases.

While the flames were raging the wind freshened and the heat became terrific.  It was soon apparent that it would be a miracle if the Golf Club pavilion escaped, and later it caught fire in the centre of the roof.   By this time the fire brigade were on the scene.  At first they were quite unable to cope with the situation, and the interior of the Golf Club house was soon a raging furnace.  It is the most strongly built structure in Happy Valley, and it was completely gutted, only the four stone walls up to the first storey being left standing.   The Club boys had plenty of warning and managed to safe a considerable amount of the property in the building.

While the fire was at its height a Japanese flag was noticed planted on the course near the ¾ mile post, and a meeting of some kind was evidently in progress.  It was eventually dispersed by the authorities.

It is impossible to give anything like the correct estimate for the loss of life but up to a late hour last night 570 bodies were collected on the race course.  Probably it will never be authentically discovered how many perished. Derelict children and Chinese women were led or carried into the enclosure and attended to by willing hands.  It was pathetic to see the youngsters, who had probably lost their parents, looking around dazed in their novel surroundings.

H.E. the Governor visited the different clearing points for the wounded, and the Colonial Secretary was busily engaged catering for the wounded and the workers.

In some instances where parents were doubtful as to the fate of their children, their anxiety was removed by the return of the children when dinner time arrived.  Their excuse for remaining out so late was that they were interested spectators of the fire.

In some cases Chinese babies were rescued and carried away from the scene of the disaster, and it will probably be difficult for the Police to trace their parents some of whom may have perished in the flames.  One little mite who was crying loudly was picked up by a European lady, who was passing at the time, and taken to her house.

No need of praise can be too great for the members of the fire brigade, the regular Police, the Police reserves,  St. John’s Ambulance Brigade and Voluntary Aid Detachment, men of the Middlesex regiment, the Naval detachment, and such members of the general public that rendered assistance.  To their heroic efforts not a few owe their lives.

The crowd of spectators in the various streets overlooking Happy Valley were about six feet deep but order was splendidly maintained.  Til nearly 9p.m. there was a steady stream of visitors to the scene.

On enquiry at the Government Civil Hospital late last night our representative was informed that 53 injured had been taken to that institution for treatment.  Nineteen cases, in which the persons sustained only slight burns, were discharged after being attended to, while 34 cases were received into the hospital.  One Chinese, who had been severely burned about the hands, neck, face and body died an hour or two after admission.

It was persistently rumoured amongst the Chinese last night that the collapse of the matshed was due to thieves having cut through some of the supports during the night with the object of causing an accident which should enable them in the panic to seize money being wagered there.   On the other hand, it is said that the collapse of the first shed was due to those in it rushing over to one side in order to see what had happened to a man who fell out.

One eye witness said “when the interval for Tiffin came round, I paid a visit to several mat sheds facing the Hongkong Golf Club.  There were crowds of Chinese and Portuguese – men, women and children – in the sheds at the time.  At about 2.30p.m. Tiffin was served to those in the booths, and everything pointed to a fine afternoon’s sport being witnessed. The bell for the China Stakes was sounded at 2.50p;.m. and crowds began to swarm into the mat sheds to purchase tickets for the sweepstakes. Suddenly someone screamed out “save life” and several people rushed out to see what was the matter, but as nothing extraordinary seemed to be happening the crowd surged back again.  Then a crumbling sound was heard, and before one knew what had occurred the sheds came tumbling down.  I think the D.A.J.A. booth was the first to collapse, followed a few minutes later by the rest.   Those who were walking along the specially constructed footpath escaped, by forcing their way through the mat screens, which extended as far as the mat sheds themselves.  Several, however, were injured by the falling bamboos.

There was a terrible crush, everyone struggled to save himself,  Children were swept hither and thither,  and I fear that several of them must have been trampled to death.  The sheds had three storey’s.  People who were on the top storey managed to force their way through the roof, and were seen crawling on top of it in hundreds endeavouring to escape.  Pandemonium prevailed, and cries of “save life!” were heard in all directions.   Those in the lower sheds were entombed in the debris, but a few managed to crawl out to safety.

The flames were seen to rise from one of the sheds, and they quickly spread to the whole of the sheds.  Police whistles were blown, and the Fire Brigade was telephoned for.  In the meantime, several civilians hastened to the scene of the disaster in order to render help.   I myself carried several babies to safety, and assisted in the rescue of over 25 Chinese ladies.   The Police under command of the Captain Superintendent promptly set to work to extricate those buried in the debris, and hundreds were conveyed to safety.  In one instance, a gentleman was jammed between two beams and was in a sorry plight.   Not withstanding this, he lifted two Japanese ladies from among the fallen timber and threw them aside.  He, himself, was helped out of his plight by two soldiers, and carried away half unconscious.

If it had not been for the outbreak of fire hundreds of others would have been saved.  The fire broke out in the D.A.J.A booth, and those who were buried beneath the wreckage were burnt to death.  This booth, a Chinese booth and the booth run by Mr. J. Blake contained hundreds of Portuguese and Chinese ladies and children, and, I fear, hardly any escaped.   The Fire Brigade aided by the fire float, stationed off the Praya, played their hoses unceasingly, but it was of no use.

Suddenly one of the eaves of the Hongkong Golf Club caught fire, and, despite the efforts of the fire brigade, the building was completely gutted.  Fortunately, everyone had left it.

Lt. Col.Ward and the men of the 25th Middlesex were on the scene and helped to maintain order, thereby stopping a panic, which might have accounted for more deaths.  The members of St. John’s Ambulance Brigade carried away nearly thirty persons who were suffering from burns or injured by falling timber.  Several ladies also rendered valuable service in tending the sufferers, who later conveyed to the Government Civil Hospital in Motorcars.  A party of Naval men under Commander Gibson, were also on duty and helped in the work of rescue.  H.E. the Governor accompanied by the Hon. Mr. W. Chatham (Director of Public Works) personally visited the wounded.

I saw several men and women with all their hair singed to the scalp; over a hundred with blood streaming down their faces, some hardly able to walk.  A number of ladies fainted at the sight.  I heard that Mr. J. Blake was seriously injured and removed to the hospital.  Mr. J. Remedios, who ran one of the sweeps in the D.A.J.A. booth and Mrs. Remedios were hedged inbetween two tables and were nearly burnt themselves.  Fortunately, some soldiers came to their rescue and extricated them out of their dangerous position.  A Jewish young lady was heard by some soldiers to scream out “save me, save me”.  The flames were rapidly approaching the place where she was but, nothing daunted, the soldiers rushed to her aid and were able to rescue her.  Several people were burnt alive in sight of the onlookers who were powerless to save them.  A Mr. A. Brittor, who was in the pari-mutuel compartment, was pinned under the counter, together with a Chinese lady, and was dragged out by a Police sergeant.

Strolling among the ruins after the disaster, I heard that Sargeant Kennedy who was helping in the rescue of victims  was rendered unconscious and had to be removed to hospital while a soldier, who had sustained burns about his arms and face, was also taken to hospital in a motor car.

It was a common thing to be asked by someone whether you had seen some missing person or the other. Men and women were wringing their hands in distress and crying out that their children were lost.  Mothers, distracted, were rushing hither and thither calling out the names of their little ones.  Little children who had been saved, were crying for their parents.  Nearly everyone seemed to have lost a child,  relative or a friend.  The scene was agonizing.

When the fire was practically quelled, a ghastly sight presented itself.  Hundreds of charred trucks, skulls and bones were visible, all huddled together.  In one instance I saw the charred remains of two babies clasped by a hand.  It was pathetic and several people who were looking at the poor remains, were reduced to tears. 

Members of the regular Police and the Police reserve, assisted by some of the general public, surrounded the debris and were engaged in picking up jewellery and valuables that might lead to the identification of the unfortunate victims.

The fire was got under at about 6p.m.  The charred human remains were carted away by coolies of the Sanitary Board for burial.  It is impossible to say how many were burned to death – probably this will never be known – but I think I am right when I state that the deaths number fully five hundred.

Before the catastrophe I noticed several people engaged in preparing meals on cooking ranges in the sheds, and it was the upsetting of these that caused the fire, which levied such a terrible toll of human life.”

It was thought that some Europeans were also burnt to death but so far no definite information has been received.  It is stated that one member of the Middlesex regiment was badly burnt, while two others were injured seriously enough to necessitate their removal to hospital.  About six men sustained slight burns, amongst them Mr. G.S. Archbutt, who was serving with the Fire Brigade when his right hand was burnt rather severely.   Among those of the Portuguese community  who are definitely known to have lost their lives is Miss Doria M. Xavier, sister of Mr. L. Xavier of the Hongkong Printing Press.  Her brother, Mr. Paulo Xavier had one of his arms badly injured and was rescued by a European Police sergeant, just when the flames had almost reached him.  He had the agony of seeing his sister perish in the flames.  Other who were injured were Mr. J.M. Brittor, who has sustained a damaged arm; P.C. (R) Lopes who rescued several members of the Xavier family, and Police Sargeant Kennedy.  Fears were expressed that several members of the Olsen family, who were in the same stand as the Xaviers, had perished, but happily there were found later to be without foundation.   A rumour was current also that Inspector Wilding of the Police Reserve, was missing, but subsequently it was ascertained that he had sustained a slight injury and was being attended to.  A sailor was also injured.

A Memorial to the victims of the terrible fire of the 26th February 1918 was erected and it can still be found tucked away behind the Hongkong Stadium